When many people think of new forms of media they might think of Twitter, Skype or whatever is the latest and greatest in communication (Holograms are next maybe? ). But to only think of those forms that are new for OUR current time and place is to miss some valuable lessons learned from studying when “old media” was first introduced. New Media: 1740 to 1915 is a series of essays that does just that, it examines what happened to society when things like zograscopes and phonographs were introduced.
One case that I found particularly interesting was when the telephone was introduced into the Amish and Mennonite communities of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. There was a big debate within those religious communities about whether this new form of communication should be allowed (it had already been accepted by the community at large). What was fascinating to me were some of the deeply rooted religious and cultural issues that were brought to the surface with its introduction. Many were against it because:
- Ungodly lifestyle – the Elders and leaders in many of these communities preached and mandated that their church members were not to use this technology because it was “associated with profit, comfort, and pleasure” (144).
- Who’s in and Who’s out – There was a great desire to be separate from the broader world and to view oneself as distinct and holy and to avoid the trappings of the world.
- Individual vs. Communal – Many argued for the telephones rejection because it would ultimately hurt the community. It was feared that it would lead to the end of face-to-face communication.
- The God Card – Some argued that it would lead to less of a dependence on God and more on society and weaken one’s faith.
Because the telephone is universal and most people have one on their person at all times, it’s easy to look back at the advent of the telephone and roll one’s eyes at those who fought against their use. But after reading some of the arguments against, I think some of their fears were justified.
- Ungoldy Lifestyle – Consumerism and Materialsm are rampant in our society and Phones can be an expression of that. Ever seen a 24k gold Iphone? Yep they actually exist.
- Who’s in and Who’s out – Is it me or does the bulk of our society want to see themselves as ‘in’ and others as ‘out?’ I think technology can exacerbate that tendency. Think about how intrigued you are when you see a new model of the IPhone or how you special you feel when you get the latest and greatest Droid? Do we always need a new one? Probably not. But certainly Apple and others want us to think we should be part of the ‘cool’ or ‘insider’ group. We are often afraid be distinct or as one author said ‘salt.’
- Individual vs. Communal – This is so easy to point out in our society it’s almost unfair to call attention to it. How many times have you been sitting in a room and had a text conversation with someone who’s in that very room? Or, called them so you didn’t have to have a face-to-face conversation with them?
- Lack of Faith in God – As odd as this might seem, I think the detractors were really on to something here. Personally, I feel uncomfortable, maybe even a little fearful, when I don’t have my cell phone on me. I think, ‘what if there’s an accident and someone needs to get a hold of me?’ Or, ‘what if there’s an emergency and I need to call the police?’ When push comes to shove, my hope and trust are as much in our societies social systems as they are in God and I’m not sure how I feel about that.
When new media forms enter the world they do more than enter a world at a tabula rasa moment. They enter a particular religious and cultural context that’s embedded with values, judgments and fears. New forms of media/communication/technology have a tendency to stir those things up Before being quick to dismiss those we might want to think are luddites, we should probably listen carefully to their arguments, because they might have a bit of truth in them (sometimes much more than a bit) that can help inform how we adopt something new into our lives.